Is the Sabbath Still Required for Christians?
- Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Some argue, however, that "Sabbath" in Colossians 2:16 does not refer to the weekly Sabbaths but only to sabbatical years. But this is a rather desperate expedient, for the most prominent day in the Jewish calendar was the weekly Sabbath. We know from secular sources that it was the observance of the weekly Sabbath that attracted the attention of Gentiles (Juvenal, Satires 14.96-106; Tacitus, Histories 5.4). Perhaps sabbatical years are included here, but the weekly Sabbath should not be excluded, for it would naturally come to the mind of both Jewish and Gentile readers. What Paul says here is remarkable, for he lumps the Sabbath together with food laws, festivals like Passover, and new moons. All of these constitute shadows that anticipate the coming of Christ. Very few Christians think we must observe food laws, Passover, and new moons. But if this is the case, then it is difficult to see why the Sabbath should be observed since it is placed together with these other matters.
Another crucial text on the Sabbath is Romans 14:5: "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." In Romans 14:1-15:6 Paul mainly discusses food that some—almost certainly those influenced by Old Testament food laws—think is defiled. Paul clearly teaches, in contrast to Leviticus 11:1-44 and Deuteronomy 14:3-21, that all foods are clean (Rom. 14:14, 20) since a new era of redemptive history has dawned. In other words, Paul sides theologically with the strong in the argument, believing that all foods are clean. He is concerned, however, that the strong avoid injuring and damaging the weak. The strong must respect the opinions of the weak (Rom. 14:1) and avoid arguments with them. Apparently the weak were not insisting that food laws and the observance of days were necessary for salvation, for if that were the case they would be proclaiming another gospel (cf. Gal. 1:8-9; 2:3-5; 4:10; 5:2-6), and Paul would not tolerate their viewpoint. Probably the weak believed that one would be a stronger Christian if one kept food laws and observed days. The danger for the weak was that they would judge the strong (Rom. 14:3-4), and the danger for the strong was that they would despise the weak (Rom. 14:3, 10). In any case, the strong seem to have had the upper hand in the Roman congregations, for Paul was particularly concerned that they not damage the weak.
Nevertheless, a crucial point must not be overlooked. Even though Paul watches out for the consciences of the weak, he holds the viewpoint of the strong on both food laws and days. John Barclay rightly argues that Paul subtly (or not so discreetly!) undermines the theological standpoint of the weak since he argues that what one eats and what days one observes are a matter of no concern.1 The Old Testament, on the other hand, is clear on the matter. The foods one eats and the days one observes are ordained by God. He has given clear commands on both of these issues. Hence, Paul's argument is that such laws are no longer valid since believers are not under the Mosaic covenant. Indeed, the freedom to believe that all days are alike surely includes the Sabbath, for the Sabbath naturally would spring to the mind of Jewish readers since they kept the Sabbath weekly.
Paul has no quarrel with those who desire to set aside the Sabbath as a special day, as long as they do not require it for salvation or insist that other believers agree with them. Those who esteem the Sabbath as a special day are to be honored for their point of view and should not be despised or ridiculed. Others, however, consider every day to be the same. They do not think that any day is more special than another. Those who think this way are not to be judged as unspiritual. Indeed, there is no doubt that Paul held this opinion, since he was strong in faith instead of being weak. It is crucial to notice what is being said here. If the notion that every day of the week is the same is acceptable, and if it is Paul's opinion as well, then it follows that Sabbath regulations are no longer binding. The strong must not impose their convictions on the weak and should be charitable to those who hold a different opinion, but Paul clearly has undermined the authority of the Sabbath in principle, for he does not care whether someone observes one day as special. He leaves it entirely up to one's personal opinion. But if the Sabbath of the Old Testament were still in force, Paul could never say this, for the Old Testament makes incredibly strong statements about those who violate the Sabbath, and the death penalty is even required in some instances. Paul is living under a different dispensation, that is, a different covenant, for now he says it does not matter whether one observes one day out of seven as a Sabbath.
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